Long And Wasted Years

Introduction

At first glance the song is about a marriage which has failed and one of the partners’ attempts to mend it. However, various indications suggest that on a deeper level the song concerns the incarnation of Christ and the means of achieving salvation. The idea is explored through three individual characters – the narrator, the woman who’s being addressed, and the ‘enemy’. The narrator and the woman, would appear to represent respectively the divine part of Christ (God himself), and Christ the man. The enemy would appear to be Satan.

It’s never made explicit who the various parties represent, and as the song develops it becomes clear that none of the three can be completely differentiated from the other two. Accordingly something which applies to one of them is likely to apply to at least one of the others and, as it turns out, to the human race generally.

The narrator, then, seems to be Christ in his divine role. He begins by lamenting the split between the divine and human sides of his nature (the Father and the Son)and suggesting that the feeling of loss is experienced by them both:

‘Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me’

He regrets the human race’s moral demise – ‘they may be dead by now’ – and urges his human part to take the action required to save it. Whilst the divine Christ is expressing his regret, it seems that the human Christ is in the desert presumably trying to come to terms with his divine role. Although on one level the song ends without the reunion of the divine and human sides of Christ, and so without the world yet having been redeemed, on another both that unity and the redemption are presented as eternal and so, in a sense, complete.


Space, Time and Eternity

It’s notable that various ideas and images are repeated as the song develops. Most importantly perhaps is the language used to express regret at the beginning and end of the song because it suggests that what goes on in time is also timeless, or eternal. The opening line is:

‘It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other and our hearts were true’

and in similar vein the penultimate verse ends:

‘… it’s been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle’.

In each case the regret is about the time that’s passed since the divine and human parts of Christ were together, presumably a precondition of the latter’s being able to take on his role as redeemer. Both at the beginning and in the penultimate verse the phrase ‘long, long’ appears – ‘long, long time’ and ‘long, long aisle’. The repetition of the phrase makes us want to identify the temporal distance referred to in the first case with the spatial distance implied in the second. In our minds the temporal becomes just spatial, and so timeless, so that what on one level happened in the distant past, on another is eternal.

If the walk down the ‘long, long aisle’ is a marital metaphor for the union of the divine and human sides of Christ, then it’s that union which is both in the distant past and timeless. It’s in the distant past in that it represents the situation prior to the incarnation, before Christ had become human. And it’s eternal in that their union is no longer in time and so is permanent.

There’s another repetition in which temporal distance gives way to spatial. In the fourth verse we’re told:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

and in the eighth there are:

‘Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide, down the eastern line’.

The ‘long long time’ is now represented as a period of twenty years separation, or ‘family’ upheaval, during which the Father has been separated from the Son. But in addition, those twenty years have become forty miles – that is twenty for each train – just as the ‘long, long time’ is going to become a ‘long, long aisle’.

And just as the replacement of the ‘long, long time’ with the ‘long, long aisle’ can be taken to represent the replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal, so the replacement of twenty years with twice twenty miles can be seen as a replacement of the temporal with the non-temporal, or eternal. Once again the temporal separation between the two elements of Christ is no longer to be seen as having occurred. Father and Son remain together – ‘side by side’.

But not just that. The eternal togetherness of the divine and the human in Christ, suggested by the temporal separation’s becoming a spatial separation, is reinforced when that spatial separation itself gives way to unity. Again this is suggested by the language. Where one would expect the trains to be ‘forty miles apart’, in a curious expression we’re told they’re ‘forty miles wide’ – which suggests that the two trains are in fact one, very wide (very wide!) train. Just as a temporal separation has given way to a spatial separation, so the spatial separation has given way to complete unity.

The upshot is that from an eternal perspective Christ is to be perceived as a unified whole. In the post-incarnation period the human Christ is temporally separated from the divine, while this is belied by their eternal union.


Christmas and Easter

Nevertheless, from a purely temporal perspective it’s still the case that there has been a separation. This separation was brought about by the incarnation. It is presumably this which occurred, according to the last verse, ‘on that cold and frosty morn’. Since by tradition Christ was born in winter, the ‘cold and frosty morn’ would seem to be Christmas day.

The phrase used to refer to the separation is ‘our souls were torn’ and this can be taken in two senses. In the first, the Son and Father are ‘torn’ in the sense of torn apart, or separated from each other. In the second, this tearing would apply to each of the parts – since each part, divine and human, is itself totally God. It’s being ‘torn’ in this latter sense which is demonstrated in the narrator’s devastation at being separated from the incarnated Christ, and by the incarnated Christ’s torment which gives rise to his talking in his sleep:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’.

Only once these rents have been mended can Christ go about the business of redemption. However, there’s no need to regret the separation because from the eternal perspective there is no separation – eternally the mending is outside time and so in a sense complete. This is made apparent in the final lines of the song:

‘… we cried because our souls were torn.
So much for tears. So much for these long and wasted years’

While on one level the implication is that the passing years have been a waste of time, on another it’s that nothing has been lost. This is because ‘so much for these long and wasted years’ can be taken to mean either that the long and wasted years were a waste of time, or alternatively that they failed to be the waste of time they seemed to be.

Similarly with the expression ‘so much for tears’. In the context of crying, it means crying has been useless, but in the context of ‘torn’ it means being torn doesn’t matter. Whether both meanings are intended will depend on how ‘tears’ is pronounced when the song is sung.

Whereas the incarnation is presented as a temporal tearing apart, Christ’s divine mission of redemption is represented as a train journey, an eternal event involving the united Christ. Unsurprisingly the former is associated with Christmas. And equally unsurprisingly the latter seems to be associated with Easter. This is by way of the expression ‘down the Eastern Line’, in which ‘Eastern’ suggests a journey whose destination is Easter and the fulfilment of Christ’s divine purpose.


The Family

While the family referred to in the fourth verse:

‘I ain’t seen my family in twenty years’

can be taken to refer to Father and Son, who have been separated since the incarnation, it is likely also to represent God’s family in the sense either of the Jewish people, or (taking the idea of the chosen race more widely) the human race. God the Father has lost touch with his people (seen as the chosen people being expelled from ‘their land’, Israel) since they became inheritors of original sin. Consequently, he sends his Son to put matters right – to ‘shake it up’:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout …’

In the verse about the family there’s the phrase:

‘They may be dead by now’

– ‘dead’ suggesting that the ‘family’ is morally dead and so in need of Christ to save them.


Doubt

The Son’s incarnation in time has given him human characteristics and it’s these which have separated him from God. One of these is doubt about his own nature which we first find out about when the divine Christ says:

‘Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say’

and follows this up by tentatively suggesting as a solution:

‘Is there anywhere we can go? Is there anybody we can see?’

We discover that the human Christ, at least, has already gone somewhere, the desert – not a place his divine counterpart had in mind:

‘What’re you doing out there in the sun anyway?
Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out’.

And in biblical accounts (such as in Matt 4.1-11) there is someone he can see – Satan.

The lines quoted can also be taken as Christ’s divine side chiding his human side for going into the desert, seen as taking a negative approach to his role. It’s that role – redeeming the human race – which requires Christ to become human. And in turn it would perhaps be his ultimate acceptance of that role which would amount to his temporal reunion with God.

The disastrous personal consequences of delaying this acceptance would go beyond Christ’s having his ‘brains burnt right out’ are seen to have much wider consequences:

‘I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned’

Whatever the occasion referred to, this implies that the demise of Christ through burning would be the demise of the human race.


The Enemy

The reference to the enemy in the verse is apposite given that Satan was present in the desert with Christ. Since the enemy has ‘an iron heart’ he would seem to represent those who lack compassion and it’s this which sets him at odds with Christ.

The lines about the ‘enemy’ can help make sense of the sun references  – ‘out there in the sun’ and ‘the sun can burn your brains right out’.

If Christ is in the desert doubting his divine role, then these references suggest that his being taunted by Satan is in effect Christ taunting himself. In other words, to this extent he is his own enemy. A Son/sun pun implies that the Son and the sun are one and the same. And if it’s the Son who can burn his brains right out, the destructive work of the sun would be the self-destructive work of the Son.

Accordingly, the enemy’s defeat, were it to occur, would be the Christ defeating himself – which can be interpreted as the divine side of Christ overcoming his human weaknesses:

‘My enemy crashed into the dust, stopped dead in his tracks and lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart’

It’s appropriate for this defeat to be described in the past tense even though it has yet to happen, because time has given way to the eternal (in the sense of that which is outside time). While from a temporal perspective the enemy’s defeat is only a possible future event, from an eternal one it is timeless. Hence it is as true to say that it has happened as that it has yet to happen. In a similar way in the song, the redemption of the human race by Christ has still to occur and yet is eternal.

The identity between the enemy and Christ, in that the enemy represents Christ’s human weakness, is further reinforced in the lines just quoted. If the enemy ‘stopped dead in his tracks’, he’s being implicitly identified with Christ who is on the tracks of ‘the Eastern Line’.

A further identity is implied in that in losing his lust, a devilish form of love, the enemy is like the divine and human lovers of the first verse who once loved each other but whose love needs to be restored. And just as the lovers’ hearts are no longer ‘true’, so the enemy’s heart is described as ‘iron’, indicating a lack of emotional warmth.

Furthermore, that the enemy ‘broke apart’ would clearly seem to identify him with both the divine and human sides of Christ which have themselves broken apart.

While the enemy is clearly made out to be Christ, at the same time the language implies he is destroyed by Christ. This is by way of the verb ‘run’ being used in connection with both Christ and the enemy. The enemy is ‘run down hard’, and this implies that he’s crushed by the trains – Christ – in that these are ‘running‘ side by side.

Two more identities can be seen which involve the ‘enemy’. The first is with the family which the narrator hasn’t seen in twenty years. We’re told:

‘… they may be dead by now,
I lost track of ’em after they lost their land’.

Since the ‘enemy’ stopped ‘dead in his tracks’ there’s an implicit identification of the enemy with the family which may be dead. And since the family is God’s chosen people, there’s the further implication that God’s chosen people – the human race – is its own enemy.

The second identification arises from this. If the human race is the enemy, and the enemy is Christ, then it follows that the human race is Christ. And since Christ is responsible for bringing about the redemption of the human race, it follows that the human race has a responsibility for its own redemption.

On the one hand the human race is its own enemy, and on the other it is its own saviour.


Anachronisms And Further Identities

A continuation of the sun imagery provides a way of strengthening the identity between the divine and human in Christ:

‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes; there are secrets in them I can’t disguise’

There’s perhaps a hint here of St Paul’s dusty mirror image for our understanding of God, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.’ (1 Cor 13.12). What are the secrets? The Pauline mirror analogy suggests it’s Christ’s own divinity – a divinity about which at this stage he is only dimly aware.

There is another way of interpreting the line. The reference to sunglasses can also be taken literally. Sunglasses, though appropriate for the desert, in the present biblical context appear anachronistic. This is just one of a number of anachronisms in the song, all of which help to reinforce a particular idea – the pre-eminence of the eternal over the temporal. The anachronisms do this because their presence can only be tolerated if in some way the temporal has been eclipsed.

Others anachronisms include modern idioms and expressions adapted from other songs:

‘Shake it up, baby, twist and shout’

as well as the trains and train track references.

An additional, though related, effect of all these anachronisms is to suggest a further identification. Since their presence in a song with a biblical setting has the effect of extinguishing the temporal distance between past and the present, it’s not just the human race two millennia ago which is identified with Christ, and so is responsible for its own redemption.  It’s also the human race as represented by us now. The anachronisms bring us into the picture. We too are Christ, and as such we take on a responsibility for our own redemption.


Conclusion

Ultimately the song provides a view from an eternal perspective according to which God, the incarnated Christ, the enemy, the chosen people and the human race up to the present day, are all one. On a temporal level there’s a separation between God and Christ, which amounts to uncertainty about the redemption. From an eternal standpoint this is resolved. But it isn’t just resolved by presenting God and Christ as united. Along the way Christ is presented as a flawed human, his own enemy, an enemy which he must overcome if the redemption is to occur. Since the human race is also identified with the enemy and therefore Christ, it too by implication has a role in its own redemption.

Scarlet Town

Introduction

In ‘Scarlet Town’ we’re presented with a view of the world as it seems to the narrator. The setting is a dance hall, although the song just comprises the narrator’s thoughts and a few spoken words from the moment the music starts, to around the time he makes a request. In the earlier part of the song the features of the world are made to appear harsh, as if there is no hope for any but the privileged. But the descriptions we’re given are highly subjective. They come through the eyes of a flawed character whose judgments can be unduly biased. However, as the song develops so do his thoughts. By the end, we’ve been given reasons to believe there may be substantial hope after all.


Origin in ‘Barbara Allen’

The song borrows phrases from various John Greenleaf Whittier poems, and a juxtaposition of Dylan’s and Whittier’s versions will sometimes serve to highlight the very different effect that Dylan is creating. More importantly, perhaps, a version of the traditional song ‘Barbara Allen’ provides the title and a couple of lines for Dylan’s song, and the latter can be seen as a more detailed study of the folk song’s main theme. The original tells the story of a young woman who spurns her lover as he’s on his deathbed, but comes to regret it. She dies and is buried in the same churchyard. Then:

‘Out of sweet William’s heart, there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.

They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
At the end they formed, a true lover’s knot
And the rose grew round the briar’

The song ends happily in that the unity which the lovers failed to achieve in life, is achieved in death. Nevertheless, even in death their characters remain unchanged – Sweet William’s being represented by a rose, and Barbara Allen’s by a coarse briar. In some versions the colours, the red of the rose and the green of the briar, are emphasised. Despite the opposite qualities represented by the plants – true love and harsh cruelty – the harshness no longer matters. It’s overcome by gentleness, represented by the rose growing round the briar.

Dylan’s song too presents a world containing both good and bad, and one in which the presence of bad should in no way prevent the combination of the two from resulting in ultimate good. His world, though, is far more recognisably our world, so that unlike its progenitor the song isn’t in danger of becoming over sentimental.

That Scarlet Town should be seen as the whole world is clear for a number of reasons. Not only does it contains the seven wonders of our world, but the events and people alluded to seem to have a universal significance. Life and death, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty are all present just as they are in real life.


Doubts about William and Mary

The second verse gives us what at first seems to be a straightforward account of an impending death – that of Sweet William. The tone is sad and seems to reflect the narrator’s state of mind:

‘Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’

However, all is not necessarily as it seems. Mistress Mary may have no more genuine concern for the dying William than Barbara Allen before her. Although her behaviour might seem innocent enough, one might wonder why she’s said to be merely at ‘the side of the bed’ rather than at his side. The situation is being presented as ambiguous, though it’s not clear whether the doubt is being imparted by the writer or the narrator. The words are the narrator’s, but whether the doubt is his will depend on how consciously he chose them. It may be that the writer is giving the narrator’s account an ironic overlay of meaning so that we’re not forced to take what he says at face value.

We’re also told she’s:

‘Kissing his face and heaping prayers on his head’.

Again this sounds innocent until one notices the precise words used. Kisses are not always the sign of affection they’re meant to be. Kissing has overtones of betrayal. The idea is taken up later in the song:

‘See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight’

where on one level ‘kiss you goodnight’ – in a verse beginning ‘…the end is near’ – can be seen to mean ‘kill you’. ‘Heaping prayers’ might also seem to be suspiciously overdoing it. Again, in each of these cases it’s unclear whether it’s the writer or the narrator who is responsible for the secondary meaning.

There’s also ambiguity about the line:

‘I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me’.

It’s not just that we don’t know whether this is a statement of the narrator’s outlook (‘I’d weep’) or Mistress Mary’s, but it suggests both sorrow and the lack of sorrow. Which is the case will depend on how likely it is that ‘he would weep for me’. While the implication is that he would weep copiously, what might be implied is ‘He wouldn’t weep for me at all, so I’m not going to weep for him’.

There’s evidence in the first verse for each interpretation – sorrow or lack of sorrow for the dying man. There we were told that ‘Uncle Tom’ is still working for Uncle Bill’. ‘Uncle Tom’ can be taken to represent black people, while Uncle Bill, judging by his name, is Sweet William. The line can be taken in two ways. On one level it suggests that there’s still slavery or, at the very least that black people are still being mistreated (as in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’) by unscrupulous employers like Uncle Bill. But equally it might be ‘Uncle Tom’ who is being criticised, the expression ‘Uncle Tom’ often being used for someone who is being unduly subservient.

There is, then, nothing definite that can be said about the characters of Mistress Mary and Sweet William. The uncertainty forces us to see the characters as each representing both good and evil, and as such exemplifying the theme taken from ‘Barbara Allen’.


The Narrator’s Pessimism

Whether or not he’s alive to the possible negative qualities of William and Mary, the narrator undoubtably takes a rather jaundiced view of the world. He seems to be a pessimist. He seems anxious to present the world as corrupt.

In connection with the beggars, ‘Help comes’ he admits. But he immediately adds ‘but it comes too late’, as if he’s determined to dwell on the negative. The writer’s allusion to the parable of the rich man and the beggar (Luke 16.20) also makes it clear to the listener that the narrator is being unduly pessimistic, for the whole point there is that the beggar ultimately is rewarded.

The narrator also seems unduly pessimistic when he (presumably unconsciously) alludes to the biblical account of a woman being healed by touching Jesus’ cloak (Matt 9.20) – ‘I touched the garment, but the hem was torn’. What would it matter if the hem is torn? The narrator, it seems, is making excuses, claiming that circumstances are against him.

This pessimism seems to extend to an excessive self-deprecation (ironically given his reference to ‘Uncle Tom’):

‘You make your humble wishes known’

What need is there for him to describe his wishes as ‘humble’? There’s no contextual requirement as there is in the Whittier poem from which the phrase comes:

‘But, bowed in lowliness of mind,
I make my humble wishes known’ (The Wish of To-Day)

And the fact that Dylan’s narrator sees these wishes as being made in cemeteries – ‘by marble slabs and in fields of stone’ – suggests that he focuses too much on the negative aspects of death. This happens again when he announces ‘the end is near’. And it also happens when his presumably ironic ‘Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn’ seems to have him replace Gabriel with a fictional nursery rhyme character as he anticipates the death of Sweet William. The narrator, it seems, does not hold out hope for eternal life.

For the narrator the world seems devoid of hope:

‘Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite
See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight

In Scarlet Town crying won’t do no good’

To put your heart on a platter is presumably to open up, or announce your innermost feelings. But there’s a sinister atmosphere, perhaps created by the association with John the Baptist whose severed head was delivered to Herod on a platter (Matt 14.6). ‘Bite’ could mean ‘respond positively’, but in the light of this association and the reference to crying, it seems more likely to mean ‘take a bite out of it’. Similarly ‘hold you and kiss you good night’ could be taken literally with the suggestion that such a display of affection could occur. Or it could be meant literally but with the implication that such a display won’t occur. Or it could simply mean there’s a high chance someone’s going to do you in.

All in all, the narrator is presenting us with a bleak picture.


Hope

In presenting this thoroughly pessimistic view, the narrator seems to be ignoring signs of hope.

That there is hope is indicated in numerous descriptions. First, the ‘hot noon hours’ needn’t be as unpleasant as the description implies because there are also ‘palm leaf shadows’ – suggesting shade. The Whittier source has:

‘The palm-leaf shadow for the hot noon hours’ (To Avis Keene)

which puts emphasis on the effect of the palm leaves by mentioning them first. Dylan’s takes the emphasis away from the shadows by mentioning the heat first:

‘Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers’

The effect is to make the narrator seem to be presenting things in as bad a light as possible. This happens again in the line:

‘Help comes, but it comes too late’

Although mentioned first, help is not what gets emphasised. By saying it comes too late, the narrator creates the impression that there’s in fact no hope. But he could equally have said ‘although it arrived too late, at least help did come’. This would have put the emphasis on help coming, but deprived the narrator of a chance to be pessimistic.

A couple of descriptions imply that the narrator sees his choices as predetermined. To begin with, you don’t have to ‘put your heart on a platter’ – an absurdly exaggerated form of wearing it on your sleeve – ‘and see who will bite’. This might be seen as unnecessarily asking for trouble. If ‘put your heart on a platter’ means ‘make an open display of your feelings’ then it’s hardly surprising if this would get met with hostility. But a more subtle account of one’s feelings would almost certainly have less injurious consequences.

Secondly, while the narrator resorts to alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with problems:

‘You fight ’em with whiskey, morphine and gin’

he surely doesn’t have to. This would amount simply to giving in. It seems weak on the part of the narrator to just assume he’s doomed. Why, we might wonder, can’t he be assertive in the face of adversity?

That the world has positive and not just negative characteristics is also reflected in the plants singled out for mention. There’s ‘silver thorn’ – reminding us of both Judas’ betrayal of Christ for payment in silver, and of Christ’s crown of thorns – but this is balanced by the innocuous ivy leaf. And:

‘There’s walnut groves and maple wood’

Coming at the end of a verse dwelling on death, this line might seem intended to strengthen the narrator’s negative picture, but it’s capable of doing the opposite. Walnut foliage is green whereas maple’s is gloriously red. Thus Scarlet Town’s trees reflect the harmony in death of the lovers in ‘Barbara Allen’. All that’s needed for there to be hope is not a complete absence of evil, but the co-existence of evil and good. And these requirements are met in Scarlet town where we can find:

‘The evil and the good living side by side’

This hope is perhaps reflected in some of the song’s other religious allusions. Scarlet Town is ‘under the hill’. Presumably this is Calvary, thus suggesting the possibility of salvation. It also suggests why Scarlet Town is so called – the whole population is covered in Christ’s blood which has dripped down onto it. In other words guilt is universal. And the name of Sweet William’s lover has been changed to Mary so that it now puts us in mind of the intercessionary role of Christ’s mother.


Narrator’s Negative Character

The narrator not only comes across as a pessimist, but part of the time as unprepared to take on responsibility for others. This is particularly apparent from the way he describes Scarlet Town as if from a distance – as if he’s not really part of it. The dismissive tone of ‘The streets have names that you can’t pronounce’ makes Scarlet Town seem unfamiliar – a foreign country, suggesting that the narrator thinks it’s troubles shouldn’t impinge on him. But it shouldn’t be foreign; the narrator was born there. It’s only foreign when contrasted with the comfortable cosy existence from which the narrator speaks:

‘You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here’.

The mention of God is ironic because the godly thing to do would be to get involved putting things right.

We can also see his attitude as cruelly dismissive. In the company of his lover he says to her, admiringly,

‘You’ve got legs that can drive men mad’.

But as soon as he starts talking behind her back she becomes

‘… my flat-chested junkie whore’.

And he’s avaricious:

‘Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce’

– a conflated line suggesting his regret both at the price of gold having gone down, and at the amount of it that’s available. The welfare of the people would not be likely to be dependent on either; gold is a concern of the wealthy.


Narrator’s Positive Character

Despite his negative qualities the narrator should not be condemned outright. He himself is an example of Scarlet Town’s quality of having ‘the evil and the good living side by side’. The evil in him is balanced by good – perhaps even infused with it. While his description of his lover is cruel, in the very same sentence he shows kindness in asking for a song to be played for her. Furthermore he recognises his imperfections and makes a point of ‘making amends’. The decision is crucial because it’s as he goes about ‘making amends’ that his pessimistic outlook becomes a smile, and that in turn results in a general transfiguration:

‘While we smile all heaven descends’

After the ‘all’ followed by a word beginning with ‘h’, we might have expected him to say ‘all hell is let loose’ or something similar. But he doesn’t. Despite the pessimism we saw earlier, he is capable of seeing that the positive can co-exist with the negative. In the final lines he seems to admit that there is such co-existence:

‘The black and the white, the yellow and the brown,
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town’

There’s a balance between black and white, between evil and good. And the presence of evil is not to be dwelt upon. On the contrary:

‘All human forms seem glorified’

The narrator realises that pessimism is the wrong approach. We don’t need perfection. Humanity can be transfigured – glorified – even though it contains evil. Just as Barbara Allen was an imperfect character, and was able to produce an ideal unity with the good William after her death, so people in the actual world can be transfigured despite its wickedness. In the company of the good ‘all human forms seem glorified’ – the wicked included.


Complacency

Despite this there are indications that we shouldn’t be complacent. We’re told ‘all human forms seem glorified’, not that they are glorified. Also, the colours black, white, yellow and brown mentioned in the penultimate line are perhaps more than anything else the colours of people’s skins, a reminder that there’s still massive inequality. Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill in the sense that black people are too often treated as inferior to white people. Nevertheless there is hope. Sweet William’s death may be ushering in a springtime of renewal.

Minor revision 18.9.2018

Early Roman Kings

Overview

The song is about the nature of God, the relationship between man and God, and whether salvation in the sense of moral regeneration can be achieved. While the song invokes the religious concept of Christ as saviour, it nevertheless implies that moral improvement might only result from human endeavour. On one level the kings of the title represent humanity generally, and in particular those who killed Christ. On another, they are to be identified with Christ and thus humanity is able to take on the role of Christ and become responsible for its own salvation. Unusually, Christ is represented as a flawed human being as well as the traditional God, thereby extending to him the sort of uncertainty felt by Blake about whether the Creator is God or devil. It’s this presentation of Christ which makes further identities possible and underlies the implication that man could be either dependent on Christ or responsible for his own fate or salvation.

The narrator is Christ. The first three verses describe the Roman kings and the final three focus on Christ himself. There is no one temporal setting, nor any one spatial setting. The same events occur in the present day, in first century Judea, and at the beginning of the human race. And they take place in ancient Greece, Judea, Rome and modern America. This suggests that events such as Christ’s crucifixion and possible resurrection are not confined to a particular time and place. They are ongoing processes which affect everyone and for which all are responsible.

 

The Roman Kings As Humanity

Humanity is represented by the Roman kings and for the most part it is presented negatively. The description ‘early Roman kings’ perhaps suggests that it was with humanity alone that moral power resided before the birth of Christ, himself in some sense a king. There was apparently once a motor cycle gang with the name Roman Kings, but even if it is accepted that the Roman kings in the song behave like a gang, any connection between them and the real-life gang would seem to end there.

The Roman kings as presented in the second verse represent humanity at an embryonic stage – ‘in the early, early morn’ – with their descent of the mountain perhaps being the fall of man (an idea taken up later in the song with the fall of Detroit), or the fall of Lucifer. The kings’ negative qualities are particularly apparent in the third verse where they are described, amongst other things, as destructive, lecherous, treacherous – and conceited:

‘Each of them bigger than all men put together’

In the first verse they are presented as somewhat shallow humans with a penchant for dressing up. But they are also made to seem menacing – they wear ‘sharkskin suits’ suggesting voraciousness, and they’re ‘driving the spikes in’, which suggests cruel violence. The later focus on Christ suggests that these spikes could be the nails used in his crucifixion. At the same time as they’re driving the spikes in it seems they’re ‘nailed in their coffins’ so that their act of killing Christ can be seen as an act of moral self-destruction. By nailing themselves in their coffins they are their own undertakers, appropriately signified by their ‘top hats and tails’.

If being nailed in their coffins is to be taken as meaning they’re spiritually dead, this is supported by their ‘blazing the rails’. The phrase suggests both setting fire to the rails (to be seen as a path through life) thereby destroying lives, and – like the later phrase ‘hell bent’ – associates them with hell fire. One expects trails to be blazed, not rails, and accordingly ‘blazing the rails’ serves as a reminder of what humanity could achieve, but doesn’t. (On the other hand, ‘blazing the rails’ might be taken more positively to mean building a railway – a way through life. ‘Driving the spikes in’ would be part of the construction process.)

It’s noticeable that the descriptions at this stage are all in the present tense. Thus the kings are made to seem to be wearing their loud sharkskin suits at the same time as they’re wearing top hats and tails. The suggestion is that their trivial liking for foppery is part of their undoing. In the second verse the use of the present tense suggests timelessness – as if the acts referred to there are for all time, never starting, never completed, always ongoing. It is now ‘early, early morn’, and the kings are now coming down the mountain. It’s not just that we’re being taken back to an earlier, prelapsarian ‘now’.Rather that ‘now’ is the same ‘now’ in which there are high-top boots and ‘spikes’ – now to be taken to mean running shoes used for a race in which ‘you’ – presumably the listener – try unsuccessfully to get away from the pack as it tears down what is now a running track. Humanity timelessly continues to restrict the moral progress of its individual members as they attempt to get away from vices such as lechery and treachery which render it literally ‘hell bent’.

 

The Roman Kings As Divine

The song eradicates any sharp distinction between humanity and the divine, and in the case of Christ replaces it with uncertainty. In the second verse we’re given the following description of the Roman kings:

‘All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn
Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn’

Here we see the kings as Greek gods coming down from Olympus bearing wholesome gifts. That the gifts are ‘corn’ perhaps suggests they are also to be seen as a particular god – no longer Greek – Christ. Their coming down the mountain is thus Christ coming from heaven to earth, and the corn is the Eucharist, the ‘bread of life’. Other reasons to associate the kings with Christ include the kings’ being ‘nailed in their coffins’. Not only was Christ nailed to the cross but he speaks as if he’s in a coffin like them when he says:

‘My bell still rings’

In his case it’s a so-called safety coffin with a bell to alert people if he happens to have been buried alive.

In addition the kings consider themselves ‘bigger than all men put together’, a description which fits Christ.

These associations of the kings with Christ suggest that they and the humanity which they represent are themselves Christ-like. What traditionally Christ does in terms of salvation, humanity too can achieve. It’s not just that humanity is hell bent, therefore. Humanity and Christ are one.

The language used to describe the kings, while making them seem frightening, also suggests a divine status. They’re ‘blazing the rails’, they operate ‘by night’ and they’re ‘speeding through the forest’. These descriptions are reminiscent of those applied to the Creator in Blake’s ‘Tyger’. The tiger is ‘burning bright in the forests of the night’ suggesting it has both the heavenly quality of light and the hellish qualities of burning and darkness. Blake expresses uncertainty about the nature of the Creator, and the same sort of uncertainty applies to the Roman kings. The Roman kings by implication have the same ambivalent status between God and devil, or between salvation and damnation. (When the line from the ‘Tyger’ is quoted in ‘Roll On John’, ‘forests’ becomes singular – ‘forest’ – suggesting it’s the speeding Roman kings the writer has in mind even there. In ‘Tempest’ Blake is one of the passengers on the Titanic who ‘gambled in the dark’ – again suggesting uncertainty.)

It would seem that to some degree divinity does characterise the Roman kings. This is important in that it allows them to be not just the cause of wrongdoing but its cure. With respect to their own redemption they can play the role of Christ.

 

Uncertainty About Christ’s Divine Status

In Verse Two:

The picture Christ gives us of himself is likewise ambivalent. Traditionally held to be fully man and fully God, he seems in the second verse to be a man with no divine status or at least with doubts about it. The dramatically ironic reference to Good Friday is the first indication of this:

‘Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings’

The horrible implication is that he has no firm idea what it will bring – his own trial and execution. This, then is Christ the man, a man without omniscience.

 

In Verse Four:

In the fourth verse, too, Christ appears as man and expresses uncertainty about his divine status:

‘I keep my fingers crossed, like the early Roman kings’

Since the Roman kings were described in language borrowed from Blake’s ‘Tyger’, their uncertainty would seem to be about their moral status – whether they are to be seen as evil or good, as fit for hell or salvation. In keeping his fingers crossed like them, Christ seems to be expressing doubt about his own status as God while remaining hopeful that he is.

The uncertainty continues:

‘I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag’

Although the ability to ‘dress up’ makes him seem like the Roman kings in their garish outfits, it’s pertinent that it’s wounds he dresses up and, furthermore, that it’s other people’s wounds. This alone makes him God-like, at least when compared with the Roman kings who dress up only themselves.

The line makes Christ’s possible God-like status becomes apparent in another way too. Using a blood-clotted rag for the sake of appearance would be to practise a human deceit. But if the blood clotted rag is a way of dressing our (or at least the addressee’s) wounds by the shedding of his own blood, it signifies a God-like ability to make possible our salvation. Nevertheless it remains significant that Christ says that he can ‘dress up your wounds’ and not simply that he can dress them. The doubt about his divinity remains.

The rest of the verse presents Christ as man rather than as God . It seems to be the man who is responsible for coarse language:

‘I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag’

The historical Jesus did consort with prostitutes but he is not normally represented as having sex with them or treating them so disdainfully. What’s more, he seems to be wanting some sort of recognition for his sexual prowess:

‘If you see me coming…
Wave your handkerchief in the air’

This attitude would make him have more in common with the lecherous kings than with God, although at the same time the lines could perhaps be seen as an exhortation to surrender to the will of God.

That the significance of Friday is lost on him is again suggested when he says:

‘I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings’

He speaks as if he’s in a coffin’ – and glad it’s a safety coffin. His concern may be to rise from the coffin, but there’s no sign he’s expecting to rise from the dead.

 

In Verse Five:

The fifth verse starts with the speaker sounding like a Roman king, a man, rather than God. Without actually threatening to take life, he announces he’s capable of doing so:

‘I can strip you of life, strip you of breath,
Ship you down to the house of death’

On the other hand, while ‘strips’ has sexual overtones reminding us of his Roman-king-like nature, at the same time it makes him an opposite of the Roman kings. Whereas they ‘dress up’ he ‘strips’.

And that he thinks he may be God becomes apparent as the verse develops:

‘One day you will ask for me,
There’ll be no one else that you’ll wanna see’

The implicit self-comparison with the emperor Nero, who famously fiddled while Rome burnt, might suggest man-like qualities:

‘Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings’

However the adoption of the ‘fiddle’ metaphor also suggests he’s about to turn the tables on Nero. Nero reputedly let Rome burn so that he could blame the Christians and so destroy them, as hinted in the third verse:

‘They destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well’

Christ’s fiddling is for the opposite purpose:

‘I’m going to break it wide open like the early Roman kings’

‘Break it wide open’ is a curiously constructed phrase. One normally breaks things up and, perhaps, leaves things wide open. It’s both positive and negative, implying both destructiveness and welcome. In destroying what the Roman kings, and particularly Nero, stand for – human egocentricity and the destruction of Christianity – Christ intends to open up a route to salvation. That at least supports the view that he sees his status as divine.

 

In Verse Six

The doubt about Christ’s divine status continues in the final verse. The mountain which the Roman kings descended from, godlike, is now the mountain of Christ who was timelessly present on it when Detroit fell. Viewed from outside time, it can be taken either as Calvary or heaven. If the mountain is Calvary, the suggestion is that the demise of the Roman kings- or the immorality they represent – is underway. If it is heaven, the fall of Detroit under the hand of the Roman kings can be seen as the fall of man. The picture we’re getting is of a Christ who witnesses man’s early demise and then intervenes to put matters right by way of his death on Calvary. However, it’s also the case that the fall of man and man’s redemption are being presented as two sides of the same coin. This would again suggest that man might be able to make amends for his own fall. There is no need for the divine intervention of Christ.

The verse continues:

‘Ding Dong Daddy, you’re coming up short’

Whilst ‘Daddy’ seems to make the addressee God the father, ‘Ding, dong’ seems to make it Christ’s possibly dead self in the safety coffin. The contemptuous tone now is in part the result of there seeming to be no possibility of salvation. Instead of rising from the dead, Christ sees himself as a corpse – no longer even a man – whose only hope of life is a somewhat pathetic bell. (There may also be an allusion to Blake’s Nobodaddy.)

The tone too, contemptuous and crude as well as critical, suggests it is Christ the flawed man speaking. Given the context, he’s presumably criticising his father for failing to prevent the excesses of the Roman kings in Detroit. His response, to put God on trial in a Sicilian court, suggests a viciousness which associates him with the Roman kings. And ironically what he threatens God with is in fact what the Romans do to Christ. His behaviour makes him much more man than God.

However all is not what it seems. it is in fact the case that the Christ operating here is both man and divine. His act of trying God, and the Roman kings’ act of trying him, can be taken as one and the same act. When God goes on trial, Christ will be on trial – provided Christ is God. The Mafia overtones of ‘Sicilian court’ suggest the trial of God is going to be a fix just as Christ’s trial was actually fixed. And so, by acting as a Roman king Christ brings about a trial and hence the salvation he criticises God, his father, for doing nothing about. Both the manhood and the divinity of Christ are involved in his pursuit of salvation for mankind.

The song ends:

‘I’ve had my fun, I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake ’em all down like the early Roman kings

The expression ‘shake ’em all down’ is perhaps a portmanteau expressing the concepts ‘shake things up’ and ‘send the evildoers down to hell’. Christ is renouncing the flawed ways of men and declaring his determination to stamp out immorality. But whether he expects to do this as God or man remains uncertain. The identification with the Roman kings in the second line suggests that it’s not like them so much as by way of them that he’s going to act. It remains open whether this requires him to be divine.

At the same time the use of ‘all’ in ‘shake ’em all down’ suggests it’s the Roman kings themselves who are going to hell because the focus of the song has been not just Roman kings but ‘all the early Roman kings’. This would require Christ to be acting independently and perhaps therefore as God. However the ‘all’ could equally refer to ‘all the women’ who go crazy about people they know to be disreputable. Or it could refer to the ‘all‘ who were killed when Detroit fell – the whole of humanity if Detroit’s fall is the fall of man. In these cases it remains open whether ‘Gonna shake ’em all down’ requires him to be divine.

 

Conclusion

The subject of the song seems to be man’s fall from grace, his far from perfect subsequent lifestyle, and the way in which he can return to moral perfection. The speaker is Christ, but a Christ who seems unsure about himself and of how salvation is going to come about. The temporal and spatial settings suggest that both the fall of man and the process of salvation are ongoing, which makes the role of Christ unclear. They also suggest that salvation should not be seen just as the fruit of Christ’s death two thousand years ago, but as the result of present day endeavours.

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That the time and source of salvation may be more fluid than the traditional view holds is likewise suggested by the ways in which those dealt with in the song are variously identified with each other. The bird representing the Holy spirit acts ‘like the early Roman kings’. Christ behaves as they behave. God the father is also the corpse of Christ in the coffin. The Roman kings are the destroyers of both Rome and Detroit. They are pagan gods coming down the mountain, and at the same time they are Christ coming down to earth; and Christ on Calvary. They are also the listener. And crucially the listener is also Christ. If Christ is not divine, the Roman kings – the listener – will have to rely on themselves to achieve salvation. This might be possible given their own divine status. And if Christ is divine, it’s through their identity with Christ that they might achieve their own salvation. Nevertheless if Christ’s own uncertainty about his divine status is warranted, then it remains uncertain what his involvement can be in man’s salvation.